(This is another article in a series by staff writer Amy Byres, who will be checking in on local businesses to see how they are faring during the pandemic.)
A Rio Rancho business owner says she feels the love and support from customers helping her stay open and get through the pandemic.
The Chill Zone near Albertsons on NM 528 is a frozen yogurt and smoothie shop owned by Cathy Awe.
“When the governor closes indoor seating, I run about 50 percent of where I should be and where I would expect to be. When the governor allows indoor, I run 75 percent to 80 percent of where I should be,” she said.
On Nov. 16, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public-health order took effect, banning indoor dining.
“It has kind of been a roller coaster because when the governor opened to 25 percent indoor seating, people’s comfort level went up, and it’s not that I had very many people sit in here, but the message was, ‘It’s safe to go into restaurants,’ and it looked like everything was going to be OK again. … But then when we were more restricted again, people got more scared,” Awe said.
She has been able to break about even every month because of loyal customers and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grant money from Sandoval County, she said.
“I think it is important for people to realize that the group mentality or the group behavior, they may think, ‘Well, my little purchase of a shake once a week doesn’t make a difference,’ but on the whole, when you get a 100 people that think that way, it makes a huge difference for a business like mine,” Awe said.
One customer buys a smoothie about three times a week and others have been leaving larger tips for the shop’s profit margins.
“There are enough people doing that, that it has really been able to make my business survive,” she said.
Awe misses customers she hasn’t seen since March.
She wants them to know she takes every safety precaution possible and has COVID safe-practices. Awe individually packs toppings, cleans machines after each use and wipes surfaces down more than required.
Three customers bring tears to Awe’s eyes with the amount of support they have provided.
“I’m usually not this emotional, but I really, really have been touched by the number of people who go out of their way to support the Chill Zone, which is my dream,” she said.
In April, one customer bought over $1,000 worth of $5 gift cards and gave them to people she knew, Awe said. The two other customers bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of gift cards.
“Not only did that cash influx help me pay my bills when I was running in the red, but that word of mouth said, ‘Here, I know the owner of this business, and it is safe to go, and I frequent it all the time,’ to give that confidence to someone else and to help build my customer base,” she said.
The customers who came in would usually spend more than $5 helping Awe that much more, she said. About 100 people know her only through the Chill Zone, and take extra time, energy and money to support the business.
One friend helped Awe beat December 2019 sales by about 20 percent this past December, she said. Awe’s friend taught her how to make cocoa bombs to sell in the shop.
“Because of her support, her creativity, her willingness to actually take it from the idea into production and actually do it, December was the only month last year that I beat out sales by a lot,” Awe said.
This inspired Awe to add more items on a candy cart, she said.
“It started with my friend who came in who started talking about coco bombs, and then it made a difference in December sales, and I realized that people will come in for specialty items and it gave a boost to my business, which can make such a huge difference,” Awe said. “A few hundred dollars in sales can make or break me right now.”
She hopes the cart will spread love with Valentine’s Day coming. With candy carts being expensive, Awe decided to build hers.
“I enjoy woodworking and it is a stress reliever, so I am building it,” Awe said.
The cart is a labor of love and helps her use square footage not being used otherwise due to restrictions on indoor dining.
“It is just so fun when I have a vision of something and I am able to make it. I took a few detours and had to redo some things and rethink some things,” she said.
Awe is selling Harry Potter novelty items like chocolate frogs, wands and jelly beans. She also has local gourmet popcorn.
For more information, visit the shop at 4320 Ridgecrest Drive or call 404-0508.